“Once the inner connection is grasped, all theoretical belief in the permanent necessity of existing conditions collapses before their collapse in practice.”

Letter to Ludwig Kugelmann (July 11, 1868)” from Karl Marx


Contribution, associated with the work of an individual, contributes to meaning. Contribution, of a system of business, contributes to value. This means, indirectly, contribution of an individual not only is of value, but of value creation <and the looped affirmation feeds mattering and meaning>. I begin there because as someone who has embraced complexity and bought into system dynamics, I’ll admit, I have never understood “work the system, not the part” as if it is a binary choice. It’s a ‘work the system and the part” in my mind. The easiest way for me to make this point is to suggest any one individual can fuck up a system (here’s looking at you some C-level person or incompetent manager) just as a fragile part of a supply chain can muck up the entire system. In addition, if you believe individual meaning/mattering is possibly the most important part of leadership responsibility, as well as productivity, treating an individual as if they are part of a Borg doesn’t quite seem like the way to go about it.

That said.

You dance with systems and dance with people/individuals (bastardized Donella Meadows thought).

You help the system, and the individual, see itself.

You help make sense of what the company is doing, who is doing what and what we want to do.

There is a interconnectedness that can’t ever really be ‘learned’, but successful navigation/management demands one be aware of. This doesn’t mean we should be seeking some ‘solution’ for an individual or the system, but rather we should seek to shift individuals within the system and shift patterns OF the system.

At the same time, we need to see systems are not the same, albeit they can have some similarities, which means no business is the same. I would be remiss if I didn’t note this is why best practices are useless (or less than useful) and consultant-designed systems applied do not mesh particularly well (and I imagine the link between ‘failed change’ and consultant design has a high correlation).

*** note: I would argue a unique solution, or a customized/personalized systems solution, to a business, while non comparable, introduces a certain integrity to the system it engages with which, in turn, maintains the integrity of the system and business itself).


“What is the way of doing something? There are many, many ways of doing things that work in different environments. We have got to get to the point that we can understand complexity, and harness it, and not reject it.’

Elinor Ostrom

The features of successful systems, Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Laureate in Economics and her colleagues, found ‘include clear boundaries (the ‘community’ doing the managing must be well-defined); reliable monitoring of the shared resource; a reasonable balance of costs and benefits for participants; a predictable process for the fast and fair resolution of conflicts; an escalating series of punishments for cheaters; and good relationships between the community and other layers of authority, from household heads to international institutions.’

Which leads me to contribution and contributing. Contribution is both personal and collective (therefore meaning is found within both individual and collective); intertwined or even symbiotic. What it is not is causal. What I mean by that is individual’s behavior and collective behavior is like a spinning three-dimensional double helix — a personalized string of DNA constantly in motion – in which its configuration subtly adapts contextually based on need/want, functional, emotional & social.

Now. This configuration is a bit different than the individual Life contribution as noted at the front of the piece. An individual on their own, will optimize contribution and meaning in a more linear back-and-forth way (think of the eyes of a Cylon in Battlestar Galactica). Alternatively, in business because you are part of an organization the double helix spins like a top with contributions emerging outwards; and returning in response in the form of value accepted/achieved by the external market.

Systems and individuals and contribution is an infinite feedback loop. That said. Individual contribution WITHIN a system is rarely solely self interest. Circling back to my point on recognizing how one individual can impact a system, David Amerland, author of The Sniper Mind , reminded me of Stanislav Petrov. To summarize, in 1983 Soviet radar malfunctioned, sent data suggesting Soviet Union was being attacked with USA nuclear missiles, Petrov assessed the data, decided it was flawed (the system failed), and did not authorize a counter launch. On a surface level this is a fantastic example of how one person can navigate a system and, in this case, save the system from itself. But the deeper dimension of the story can actually be found in Rutger Bregman’s book Humankind . Stanislav Petrov was not just acting out of self-interest, but rather with the larger ‘collective’ interest in mind. He didn’t mindlessly follow orders, but rather saw the greater good in the consequences of simply following ‘the system.’ I mentioned Humankind because Bregman outlines a number of individual/group dynamics to support this premise. Now. Some complexity theory people are going to throw out some thoughts on enabling constraints, chaos, complication not complexity and a bunch of other intellectually insightful thoughts. I would argue Petrov is an example of self-interest being trumped by a desire for the greater good, i.e., contribution to the collective interest. Period.

** note: reminder that Adam Smith, the supposed father of self interest, actually stated in Moral Sentiments (his other book) that we are not, by nature, solely self interested but also naturally interested in others.


Circling back to dancing with a system, I do believe contribution can be ‘released’ within this double helix constantly moving (dynamic complexity) system. And while my suggestions appear to be focused on individual, I could argue they scale to a collective/group sense:


— Seamless

This is about fitting in to an existing double helix DNA behavioral map. Success, with this type of idea, more often than not, is not creating something new forcing people to do something different, but rather fitting in <in a new way> what they are currently doing. This idea is all about “persuasion versus accepting”. Persuading someone that they should do, or try, something versus having someone accept something as part of the natural flow of Life & what they do.

I will note this idea is tricky because while it CAN be about improvement, “broken connections” (fractals) fixed simply puts a system back to the normal complexity. You may be solving a specific complication but, in reality, it reverts back to a ‘comfortable complexity.” This may sound like semantics, but in an idea world in which we attempt to want to espouse “improvements bettering people’s lives” seamless ideas are actually more about “doing something that no one really notices.”

Ponder that.

— Nudge

There are a number of excellent books defining and discussing a “nudge” idea. Nudge (Thaler), Tipping Point (Gladwell), Herd (Earls), The Choice Factory (Shotton) all discuss aspects of nudging type thinking. That said. This type of participatory ‘dancing’ is carefully incongruent to the natural flow of things. Its comfortably uncomfortable (or uncomfortably comfortable). It nudges the entire rotating double helix of behavior so its axis shifts without discombobulating the entire flow of someone’s, or the collective’s, life. You fail if it shifts the ground people stand on and succeed if people feel like they remain on solid ground, but actually have eased into a parallel dimension. A nudge can change the entire system.

Ponder that.


— Rearrange

“So, the universe is not quite as you thought it was.

You’d better rearrange your beliefs, then. Because you certainly can’t rearrange the universe.”

Isaac Asimov

You can’t rearrange someone’s universe. Well. Sometimes you can, not often, but the right idea with the right idea can get a person to rearrange their universe. The truth is, depending on what you are attempting to do <like change an entire enterprise model>, you can actually get the collective, or the entire system, to rearrange itself.  I imagine some people would call these disruptive ideas**, I will not. They are simply moments in time in which an idea aligns with a human idea which rearranges people’s behavioral universe (and even how they make think about themselves and the business in doing so).

This idea is tricky. While this one purposefully taps into the expansiveness of complexity and system dynamics and is a full on “possibilities”/future-looking idea, it can often look quite random. Rearranging often looks random in the moment and, of course, obvious*** in hindsight (which makes it difficult to convince people it is meaningful).

** instead of thinking of disruptive ideas possibly think about them as rearranging ideas. with a ‘re-arranging’ idea you really have two basic choices:

          • Full newness
          • optimal newness

Full newness is always tempting. We like to call these disruptive ideas and they just may well be. Just be aware the majority of people do not like to be on the bleeding edge.

Optimal newness is art and science. Too new increases the risk assessment, too grounded it becomes a ‘so what’ idea. the best idea here is tightly tied to ‘contextual to the opportunity’.


*** obvious (def.): we neatly arrange things so things seem linear/causal in reflection.


Look. I don’t remember where I found this, but in 2017, there was a study that asked if people would rather be remembered for “the contribution they made to others/society” or “the amount of financial wealth they created.” 90% of respondents said they would rather be remembered for their contribution.  Another study following over 4,460 people over nine years found that those who were purpose-oriented (focused on meaning rather than achievements) had higher levels of income and net worth over time. My point is I think it’s silly to ignore the truth that work, where we spend over 1/3rd of our lives doesn’t matter to who we are and how we make some meaning of our lives.

If work, businesses, help us contribute to others, and society, through our work it kind of seems like a win-win. But my real point is contribution, and systems dynamics, is about both the individual and the collective and if we want to find a better way of doing business, with a vision of creating a better world/society, I believe we would be better off thinking about this. I imagine my larger point is that systems and individuals are inextricably linked and if one desires to ‘work the system’ they will also need to ‘work the individual’ (I hate that phrase). Systems are people and people, inherently, are unique typically working in coherence to the benefit of a larger collective (or in other words … they work the system, and within the system, attempting to release potential to the benefit of something larger than the individual self-interest). Maybe to the point, systems are people. Ponder.




, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Written by Bruce